A Taliban suicide bomber waited for days in Kabul to meet and kill Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan’s top official pursuing talks with the guerrilla movement, a member of the government’s peace body said.
The bomber stayed at the guest house of the High Peace Council, which Rabbani chaired, and persuaded council members that he had an important Taliban message to give to Rabbani personally, said Mohammed Ismail Qasemyar. The man then killed Rabbani by detonating a bomb hidden in his turban as he hugged him in greeting, Qasemyar said in a phone interview yesterday.
Rabbani may have been assassinated Sept. 20 by the Jalaluddin Haqqani faction of the Taliban, two U.S. intelligence officials said. U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, is backing Haqqani’s guerrillas in a sustained war against U.S. forces and Afghan citizens.
The agency, known as ISI, must “disconnect from Haqqani and from this proxy war that they’re fighting,” Mullen said in a speech Sept. 20 at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee today that the Haqqani group acts as a “veritable arm” of ISI.
After years in which U.S. officials declined to speak publicly about Pakistan’s support for Haqqani’s attacks on American forces, Mullen, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other officials have demanded a change from Pakistan since they said it was Haqqani’s group that hit the U.S. Embassy in Kabul with rocket-propelled grenades Sept. 13.
One U.S. official cautioned that no hard evidence shows that Haqqani’s organization killed Rabbani and said others might be responsible. That source, and the intelligence officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because the matters are classified.
The man who killed Rabbani arrived in Kabul several days ago “and contacted several peace council officials, telling them he was an important Taliban envoy and had a peace message to deliver only to Rabbani,” Qasemyar said by phone. The envoy was escorted to Rabbani’s home by council officials and security guards deferentially avoided searching his turban as they let him enter, police spokesman Hashmatullah Stanekzai said.
Mullen, who is to retire when his term ends next week, said he met for four hours Sept. 15 with Pakistan’s military chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, demanding that Pakistan end support for Haqqani. He declined to say how Kayani responded.
Pakistan denies backing the Haqqani group, which is based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan district and nearby provinces of eastern Afghanistan.
Mullen Sept. 20 repeated conclusions that have been stated for years by the Indian and Afghan governments, and by independent scholars such as Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, who has written that ISI uses Islamic militant guerrilla groups to attack its foes in Afghanistan and to strike India over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
“The ISI has been doing this, supporting proxies for an extended period of time,” Mullen said. “It is a strategy in the country and I think that strategic approach has to shift in the future.” He then said, “The Haqqani piece of this has got to be reversed -- period.”
Mullen said the U.S. will take “appropriate action” against further Haqqani attacks on its forces, while declining to offer details. Since January 2008, nearly a quarter of the 254 U.S. missile strikes in Taliban-dominated areas of Pakistan have targeted Haqqani’s guerrillas, according to a database maintained by the Long War Journal, a U.S.-based monitoring group.
Rabbani’s killing will complicate efforts by President Hamid Karzai’s government, the U.S. and Pakistan to start a peace process with the Taliban, said Waheed Mujda, a political analyst at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies who formerly was a Taliban official. The three governments are competing to shape such talks and any deal that might emerge, Waliullah Rahmani, director of the research group, said in an interview last week.
Karzai appointed Rabbani and the peace council 11 months ago, including former Taliban officials among its members.
Rabbani failed to make progress because he was an old enemy of the Taliban who failed to win their trust, said Mujda, who served in the former Taliban government as a foreign ministry official.
Rabbani’s assassination will complicate peace efforts that are critical to the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, said Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. “I don’t see how we can successfully wind down our presence in Afghanistan without being able to point to a credible peace initiative,” he said.
Also, Pakistan’s unwillingness to combat the Haqqani network reveals the bankruptcy of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship said Cilluffo and Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
“The litmus test for Pakistan is whether they are willing to sever their ties with proxy groups such as Haqqani,” said Cilluffo in a telephone interview. “The U.S. and its coalition partners’ patience is wearing thin.”
“There’s really no alliance there,” said Fair, a specialist on Pakistan. “Our allies are their enemies, and their enemies are our allies. As we go into the endgame in Afghanistan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our interests are different. The only good thing about that is that as it becomes clear that our military and intelligence relationship is going to pot, it may force us to focus more energy on the civilian side of the relationship.”
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